Road trip to Fagu- a Himalayan paradise

Road trip to Fagu- a Himalayan paradise. Every time I visit the state of Himachal Pradesh I am awestruck by the sheer brilliance and magnitude of nature’s “creation”. From the emerald tree-lined rolling valleys to the colonial summer capital of Shimla to the towering and intimidating barren and jagged mountains of Lahaul-Spiti and Kinnaur districts, nature has gifted Himachal in abundance. And at the slightest opportunity, I step on the gas to visit this paradise which without a shred of doubt, is my adopted second home.  

  • Road trip to Fagu- a Himalayan paradise
  • Road trip to Fagu- a Himalayan paradise
  • Road trip to Fagu- a Himalayan paradise
  • Road trip to Fagu- a Himalayan paradise

This year, the heat was relentless and Delhi felt like a convection oven. The need to visit the mountains became more of a necessity than a luxury. And with signs of the pandemic abetting after more than two years of wreaking havoc in the country, it was difficult not to venture out once again. Among the three states and one union territory that are home to the mighty mountains of the Western Himalayas, Himachal Pradesh had always been my first choice. You might argue- what about Jehangir’s “paradise on earth”. I beg to differ. Let him have his paradise in Kashmir; I have my own in Himachal.

Road trip to Fagu- a Himalayan paradise
My beautiful Himachal

Where to go?

But, where in Himachal? The place is resplendent with its diverse beauty. Unlike the typical tourist circuit of Kashmir- Srinagar, Pahalgam and Gulmarg, Himachal offers a formidable challenge in deciding where to go. Do you want to witness colonial architecture and shop till you drop? Shimla is your place. If you are looking for the serenity of nature, vast expanses of verdant meadows will greet you in Khajjiar. If you like to wake up with the tweet of birds and feel the Champagne-like droplets of cottony clouds on your face, Chail could just be the place you are looking for. Himachal also provides a ringside view of Tibetan culture in Dharamshala and McLeod Ganj where His Holiness the Dalai Lama resides.

Or, are you in the mood for adventure and boast about how you conquered dizzying altitudes without being on an aeroplane? Climb and climb leaving the rolling valleys and the meandering roads under your feet. Cross Rohtang La and you will be surrounded by an unearthly world of towering mountains devoid of any vegetation, the rays of the sun piercing through the unadulterated rarefied air will burn your skin. If you go in the shade, possibly you will be shivering to the bone. The altitude beyond Rohtang along the formerly known Hindustan Tibet Road on the way to Leh never falls below 10,000 feet.

During our school days, we learned that the Himalayas are fold mountains. The mountains virtually jostle with the road for space and you can literally see the folds of the mountains that have developed over millions of years due to the shifting of tectonic plates deep down. The indigenous people of the tribal districts of Lahaul-Spiti and Kinnaur mainly follow Tibetan Buddhism and the landscape is dotted with beautiful ancient and medieval gompas rich with a collection of precious paraphernalia- Tabo, Key, Tangyud and Dhankar to name just a few. For those of you with a higher dose of adrenalin in your bloodstream, the choices for high-altitude trekking are endless. A tough but ethereal experience is the trek from Darcha to Padum through the wilderness of Zanskar. The trek starts from Darcha in Lahaul-Spiti and ends at Padum in Ladakh. But, Lahaul-Spiti is another story, a ballad about nature, that makes you realise that you had been extremely fortunate to be born a human.

A leisurely serenity

For our recent visit, we finally zeroed in on a road trip to Fagu- a Himalayan paradise. Four years back when embarking on an adventure to Kinnaur, I crossed this serene hamlet and had decided that Fagu deserved much more than a passing glance. Fagu, as believed, comes from the word “Fog” which is one of the defining features of this quaint hilly village nestled at 8200 feet above sea level and around 24 Km ahead of Shimla on the way to Kinnaur. Away from the noxious vehicular pollution and noise and din of Shimla, we congratulated ourselves on our choice of destination when we reached our hotel. At almost two thousand feet above Shimla, the temperature of Fagu was at least 5-6⁰C less.

Fog engulfing Fagu- as the name suggests

A word of caution though for those who prefer the humdrum of human chatter, and marketplaces and are too fussy about the availability or rather non-availability of their indigenous cuisines- Fagu is not the place for you. If you like to immerse yourself in the divinity of nature and surrender yourself to her vagaries, Fagu will never make you regret.

The joy lies more in the journey than the destination

To me, driving a car is synonymous with being in control. As much as I love driving, the mere feel of the vibrating wheel under my palms gives me a sense of security and calmness. The throbbing engine responding promptly and diligently to every command feels like taming an untamable beast. Add to that your own freedom when you are in the driver’s seat. You are not at the mercy of another person’s mood or whims. You are your own master and your car is your partner in crime.

Precisely at five in the morning of 28th May I along with my family began our journey from Delhi to Fagu with me as the driver of course. Most of the route to Fagu was known and tested. The shortest and the best route that I always follow is through the wide and beautiful NH-44 up to Ambala- then Ambala-Chandigarh Expressway up to Zirakpur near Chandigarh- a right turn under the Zirakpur flyover onto NH-5, also known as the Himalayan Expressway up to Shimla- and finally from Shimla to Fagu via the notorious and deadly yet divinely picturesque NH-22. But, do not get alarmed. The stretch from Shimla to Fagu is as smooth as a breeze if you are not new to driving in the hills. Things become messy only after crossing the Karcham Dam in Kinnaur which is another 185 km from Fagu.

Although NH-44 is a very busy highway, you can easily drive at 90 to 100 km/hr. for the most part of the journey up to Ambala as the road is considerably wide and extremely well maintained. Lined by eucalyptus trees and green and golden fields that stretch up to the horizon enjoy and appreciate the inherent beauty of simple things. This major thoroughfare from Delhi to Ambala and beyond into Punjab is home to some of the best and most sought-after Dhabas in India which serve veg and non-veg Punjabi food rich in flavour, made fresh and smeared with home-made ghee or butter. It will be a sin if I do not mention a few of them- Amrik Sukhdev Dhaba- Murthal, Pehalwan Dhaba- Murthal, Gulshan Dhaba- Sonipat, Zhilmil Dhaba- Karnal, Haveli- Karnal, Pooran Singh da Dhaba- Ambala.

Road trip to Fagu- a Himalayan paradise
On NH-44

I have mentioned these based on their popularity and the volume of crowd they pull, but not essential that you would like them all. For instance, Amrik Sukhdev Dhaba is famous for their stuffed parathas and pulls crowds even from Delhi during weekends, but my personal opinion about their parathas is not anything to write about. I found their parathas too dry and the filling completely flavourless, though they serve them with a huge dollop of homemade white butter. I have had excellent parathas at much smaller places that do not carry the burden of fame. If one cannot get their parathas right in North India which is a staple here, I can’t give them the benefit of any excuse whatsoever.

We zipped through the highway leaving the madness and dustbowl of Delhi behind, soft music playing on the car audio. A drive away from the city is always so relaxing and refreshing! After about three hours it was time to stretch our limbs and have a hearty breakfast somewhere between Sonipat and Panipat. While you are on a long drive it is essential to take a break every three to four hours. Not only does it rejuvenate you, but it is also dangerous to drive for longer periods with the car air conditioning on and the window panes rolled up. Carbon monoxide may accumulate inside and it is lethal. The worst part is that it is a silent killer. With no apparent uneasiness, it makes you sleepy and groggy. If you are behind the wheels, it is an extremely perilous proposition. So, take breaks every few hours, open the doors of your car and let both your car and yourself breathe.

Breezing through the highway, we crossed Ambala Cantonment in four hours from Delhi and took the Ambala-Chandigarh Expressway. You would be forced to slow down as you would face heavy traffic, right up to the Zirakpur flyover which is the gateway to Chandigarh. From under the flyover, a right turn took us to the Himalayan Expressway. The hazy silhouette of the hills popped up in the distance and with it the thrill of climbing up the mountains. The gently meandering expressway ascends at a very gentle gradient till you reach the foothills. As you drive up the hills the turns become more and more acute. I switched off the A.C. and rolled down the windows. In about 45 minutes we could already feel the cooler air and the fresh smell of the foliage around us.

Road trip to Fagu- a Himalayan paradise
Heading towards the Himalayan Expressway- the first glimpse of the hills

I reduced the speed. There is no place for heroics in the mountains. It is never wise to challenge the immenseness of nature but to humbly accept and genuflect. Go slow, breathe deeply and steep in whatever she has to offer- the towering rocks on one side of the road giving way to the endless precipice on the other side; try to catch sight of avian beauty that has become such a rarity in the cities; cottony clouds floating beneath; pine forests stretching above, as high as you could see.

Most of the stretch to Shimla is a smooth ride although there are intermittent irritants of dusty unending roadworks for the widening of the roads till Kandaghat. As you reach Shimla, it’s time to put your patience to the test. Shimla is a classic example of everything that is wrong with tourism development and management in India. The once beautiful colonial town is bursting at its seams with overpopulation, filth, destructive urbanization, overexploitation of resources and above all sickening air pollution that puts the megacities of India to shame. It took us more than one hour to leave NH-5 and join NH-22, a distance of merely three kilometres as we were stuck in a serpentine queue of traffic jams, our eyes burning from the noxious fumes.

Once we crossed the city limits on NH-22, it was time to step on the gas once again. The road started ascending steeply and the scenery changed drastically. The gigantic pines gave way to shrubs and bushes. Although not barren, the vegetation became less. The rocky peaks seemed even more intimidating and the ravines deeper. Vast swathes of apple orchards on the terraced slopes greeted us at every bend. As we soared through the hilly terrain, the valley became more and more expansive with rows of mountains each higher than the one nearer, slowly dissolving in the misty horizon. Although it was a sunny afternoon, we could feel the sharp drop in temperature. Along with the chill came the wind.

From Shimla, we drove on a continuous upward incline up to Kufri at 8900 ft. and at a distance of 18 km. In the last few years, Kufri, a popular ski resort, which was once a scenic paradise, has turned into another illustration of unplanned development. An amusement park drives hordes of tourists from the plains who litter the surroundings. Hotels and restaurants are mushrooming up as if there is no tomorrow putting tremendous pressure on the fragile ecosystem. Seeing the mass of humanity at Kufri, we thanked ourselves that we decided to stay at Fagu instead.

Another 6 km from Kufri on a gentle slope took us to Fagu.

Our road trip from Delhi to Fagu

Fagu, at last

Around four in the afternoon we reached our hotel- Hotel Apple Blossom run by HPTDC (Himachal Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation). The gentle, crisp, chilly breeze squeezed out all the fatigue of the ten-hour-long drive like magic.

The reason I prefer hotels run by tourism departments is because they are almost always situated at the best possible location of the area offering fantastic panoramic views, although service and maintenance can often be pathetic. Surprisingly, this beautiful hotel was much better than I expected of a government-run hotel.

As I drew the curtains on the windows, the glorious mountains revealed themselves in all their magnificence. The bright green of the nearby hills soaked in bright sunshine rolling into ever-increasing higher mountains that melted into dream-like distant mist. The hotel’s location is so unique that you can view both sunrise and sunset from the same place.

Night fell into the day. Before the light of dawn, my son and I decided to go on a hike to the apple orchards and capture the sunrise on our camera, praying that fog would not play a spoilsport. The Gods yielded. It was spectacular! As the sun peeped through the V of the valley and rose up, streaks of golden rays pierced through the clouds- a scene right out of the canvas of Van Gogh.

Road trip to Fagu- a Himalayan paradise
An ethereal view of sunrise from our hotel

Fagu, with its stupendous beauty, does not offer much of culinary options though. So, it called for a visit to Shimla, a foodie’s delight. Yet, our primary purpose for visiting Shimla was not to hunt for gourmet food but dig out a decent place where we could savour authentic local Himachali cuisine. Our research took us to a gem- Goofa Ashiana Restaurant run by HPTDC. It was chock-a-block with tourists and locals. The presence of so many locals assured us that it must be worth the wait. We had our lunch with Sepu Vadi– a kind of extremely flavourful dumplings made with urad dal, fennel seeds and asafoetida steeped in spinach gravy; Chha Gosht– a rustic and rare delicacy among the shepherds of Himachal made with falling-off-the-bone mutton, buttermilk and various Indian spices and Naan. With our bellies satisfyingly full and a stroll down The Ridge, Shimla served its purpose.

Sepu Vadi and Chha Gosht

With our minds refreshed and our gastronomic desires satisfied, it was time to drive back home the next day.

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